A Sweet, Wild Note

The good people at Elliott & Thompson asked me to review Richard Smyth’s new book.

I was at a conference last year when one of the delegates balked at the idea of being called a nature writer. To be one of those, he suggested, would put him outside of nature: a false god looking down on creation, rather than a being of flesh and blood intricately linked to – both affecting and affected by – the surrounding environment.

In some ways it is this issue that Richard Smyth is setting out to explore in A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When the Birds Sing. After all, as Smyth himself explains from the outset, this isn’t a book about birdsong, “it’s about the places where birdsong and human culture overlap, and interact.” There is, he suggests, a gap “between the noises the birds are making and the songs we’re hearing.”

Perfectly paced, Smyth’s writing bubbles along, itself like birdsong; the occasional unexpected wry note adding a layer of wit to an exploration of how literature, music, science and even concepts of national identity have been shaped by the birds’ quivering syrinx. For Smyth, birdsong should “belong to the birds” but the history he sets out demonstrates the repeated attempts by humans to make it their own. Poets, musicians, artists and emperors have all laid claim to birdsong, either through interpretation or, with speciest conceit, through bids to improve it.

But it is when birds are allowed to keep their song at the expense of freedom that Smyth’s book becomes truly captivating. His account of chaffinches being blinded by hot needles (to improve their singing) or lured by Victorians onto sticky lime, is a chilling example of the cruel disregard with which we have treated our fellow creatures.

It is such recklessness that continues to worry Smyth. As he continues to navigate the relationships between birds, people and landscapes, he wonders if attempts to unpick and isolate birdsong – the recordings, the music, the poems – has fostered a sense of “As long as we have a Works of Wordsworth on the bookshelf, we’ll have cuckoos”. Such complacency not only misunderstands the dynamic nature of birdsong and the environment more generally, but at a time when many species are suffering devastating declines, it is as unthinkable as silent fields, hedgerows and trees.

A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott & Thompson on April 13.

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